Lacan after Nate Silver

Casual readers of Jacques Lacan (like me) tend to gloss over the evolution of Lacan’s thought over time. So much that is foundational was elaborated in the 1950s; so much that is most confusing (at least for those of us who do immediately understand references to, say, “the square root of negative one” or the topology of Klein bottles) seems to be found in Lacan’s later works (which, in any event, remained until recently unavailable in English translation). It is natural, then, that when we talk about “Lacan,” we often make the tacit decision to talk about the body of thought consolidated in Écrits (published in 1966, but largely comprised of papers from the 1950s) and to ignore the final decades of Lacan’s work.

For leftists and radicals, this is a tendency worth reconsidering. The later seminars are extraordinarily relevant to our projects, in particular Seminar XVII, The Other Side of Psychoanalysis. Delivered against the background of  the the student-worker revolts of May 1968, The Other Side of Psychoanalysis was shaped by two exigencies. First, Lacan found himself newly relevant politically. A social movement–perhaps a revolutionary one–had emerged that was  aligned with Lacan’s ethics of desire (premised on the maxim: “do not give up on your desire”). Second, Lacan was enjoying newfound academic legitimacy. A Lacanian Department of Psychoanalysis was established at the new Vincennes branch of the Université de Paris, which created for Lacan a variety of challenges regarding the transmission of his elaborations on classical Freudianism (Lacan had developed and refined his method outside of the university and in opposition to mainstream psychoanalytic training) [1].

Against this background, it is not surprising that in Seminar XVII, Lacan contemplated the politics of both desire and institutional knowledge.In Seminar SVII, Lacan worked out a novel conjugation of politics, desire, and knowledge, concretized in a set of four graphs. These famous “mathemes” sought to represent the discourses that mapped out the limits of the sayable and the thinkable in postwar French thought.

Four discourses: that of the master, the university, the analyst, and the hysteric. In the late 1960s, Lacan tells us, one of them–the discoure of the university–had recently become dominant, displacing another–the discourse of the master–which had for many centuries served as the command center of the Western intellectual universe.

What distinguished the discourse of the university, Lacan stressed, was a certain reification of knowledge: “not knowledge of everything (savoir de tout)–we’ve not got to that point yet–but all-knowing (tout-savoir)” (32). Having given some thought to Jonathan Lear’s notion of “knowingness” in a recent post, I was struck by the resonance of this passage with Lear’s work and with certain goings-on in the domain of current events.

I returned to Lacan and Seminar XVII while trying to process some thoughts about the climax and denouement of the electoral season. It seems useful to try to work through some of these problems, using, as best we can, Lacan’s theory of the four discourses–or, more precisely, the rise of the discourse of the university and decline of the discourse of the master– as a skeleton key.  The end game is, of course, trying to make sense of why we hate Nate Silver so much.

How out of sync am I with the world? On November 2, I tweeted:  “don’t know how all this will shake out, but for the record I have always found Nate Silver off-putting.”

At the time, Silver was coming under attack from right wing pollsters and professional morons like Dylan Byers; not, ordinarily, types with whom I like to line up. Their criticism of Silver was appallingly backwards. Nevertheless, I do find Silver off-putting. I don’t think it’s vulgar geekophobia. I have always found my place among the nailbiters, coke-bottle glasses-wearers, compulsive hair-eaters, liner notes-memorizers.  Silver’s ectomorphic awkwardness cannot be the reason I don’t like him. What is it, then?

I think that Silver radiates positivist arrogance, which is only made worse by his having been anointed by a birdbrained media machinery. I also think that my troubles with Silver can be traced back to deeper political and philosophical anxieties: in particular, a vision of data triumphant over human agency that strikes me as thoroughly antidemocratic. Aggregating polls, along with correlating voting behavior to income, has become a deterministic end-run around the multidimensionality and proneness to contradiction of real humans in real life.

In the end, my problem is not so much with Silver (who performs a job that is probably of some value), but with Silver’s public image as the consummate expert, the final pundit-killer, the wonk who will free us from the agony of indecision [1].

Now, of course, we know that, in the prognostication department, Silver was right. On  election night, liberals delighted in speculating about how many sexual partners would be flinging themselves Silver-ward as the voting tallies rolled in, confirming, apparently, Silver’s perspicuity. The problem is not solved, however, by acknowledging that Silver was right. The veneration of Silver speaks to a larger ideological dilemma, to the crisis of “knowingness” about which we speculated a bit several posts back.


The logical starting point for a consideration of what Lacan has to do with Nate Silver might be a Clay Bennett cartoon from the morning after the election:

The master watches, horrified, as the election results roll in. His servants continue to attend to his every need, but they are all smiling. Who knows if they voted for Obama, or voted at all. It’s not important. The master confronts the shocking truth: his class allies and fraternity brothers have not purchased–cannot purchase–the political system in its totality. There are limits to the power of money and the rationalizations dreamt up by the court philosophers and lackeys. Democracy, however weak and watered down, persists [3]. The servants know something that the master does not–they have known it for a long time–and finally, the master’s world (which sees all poor people as automatically stupid) can no longer insist that they are wrong. The master’s frown is not turned upside down.

The cartoon brings to mind this passage from Jacques Rancière:

“Equality is not a fiction. All superiors experience this as the most com­monplace of realities. There is no master who does not sit back and risk letting his slave run away, no man who is not capable of killing another, no force that is imposed without having to justify itself, and hence without having to recognize the irre­ducibility of equality needed for inequality to function. From the moment obedience has to refer to a principle of legitimacy, from the moment it is necessary for there to be laws that are enforced qua laws and institutions embodying the common of the community, commanding must presuppose the equality of the one who commands and the one who is commanded. Those who think they are clever and realist can always say that equality is only the fanciful dream of fools and tender souls. But unfortunately for them it is a reality that is con­stantly and everywhere attested to. There is no service that is carried out, no knowledge that is imparted, no authority that is established without the master having, however little, to speak ‘equal to equal’ with the one he commands or instructs.”

Reflecting upon such scenes (the marrow, after all, of several millennia of European class politics) Lacan formulates his central question: “Does (the master) have the desire to know?”

The answer is: only under certain rare conditions. Above all, the master wants to be right. He wants to retain his sense of privilege and superiority. He wants to be adored and admired, and to not have to spend any more of his money on the “takers” and the “lucky ducks.” The vast majority of the world’s information and analysis is geared towards his prejudices. He is told that supply always creates its own demand, and that welfare creates poverty. He is told this because it pleases him, and because he pays for it, and the customer is always right. He has purchased–at great expense–his own idiocy and impotence.

Lacan’s key insight is this: “A real master… doesn’t desire to know anything at all–he desires that things work. And why would he want to know? There are more amusing things than that” (24).

The master has never had to develop any curiosity or thirst for knowledge. The brute violence at the heart of relations of domination insures that others will be impelled to know for the master, and to know properly.

This leads to Lacan’s (and the cartoon’s) insight into the “essence of the master”:  “namely, that he does not know what he wants” (32).

Drawing on Hegel (via Kojève), Lacan identifies the slave and the servant (and, by extension, the worker in capitalism) as the first repository of knowledge. The slave knows everything (how to work, how to please, how to not get killed, and, most importantly, how the world really works); the master knows nothing (he doesn’t even know how to have fun, what turns him on, because valets are always rushing in to satisfy his desires at the earliest possible moment).

It is this framework–the consideration of masters and slaves, power and knowledge, desire and the education of the senses– that lurks a the heart of Lacan’s four discourses (image via

The matrices are to be read clockwise, starting at the upper left-hand corner. Via a “quarter-turn,” each generates its successor. The question remains, of course, what the fuck do the letters and symbols mean, and how are we meant to “read” the process described by each matrix as we trace the clockwise movement?

Here is a cipher for the terms (jpegs pilfered from

And for the places:

If we begin with the master’s discourse (the third of the four matrices in the list above), we can map out exactly the dynamic that Lacan describes as characteristic of the master/slave relation vis-a-vis power and knowledge.

The master (represented by S1, Lacan’s symbol for the “master signifier”) is in the place of the agent. The master initiates the process, puts the other (in this case, S2, discourse or knowledge itself) to work. Lacan often uses the example of the capitalist and the worker as the paradigmatic agent-other relation. Here, S2, knowledge, is interchangeable with the worker, since, as we observed above, it is only workers who know anything about the production process (lest anyone object to this supposition as fanciful, I can vouch for its accuracy at least as far as the labor-historical literature goes: recall Big Bill Haywood’s quip that the “manager’s brains” were “under the workman’s cap,” a conclusion with which Haywood’s Taylorist class enemies would have agreed, although the latter considered this to be a problem to be eliminated via scientific management).

The result or product, which we find in the lower right-hand corner, is always simultaneously a win and a loss, because there are two mutually antagonistic parties: capitalist and worker, plaintiff and defendant. In the case of the master’s discourse, the product is (or “objet petit a”), indicated in the figure above as “surplus jouissance,” but which we could also be reckoned, in classically Marxist terms, as the more familiar “surplus value” (“surplus jouissance” does make a little bit more sense because it describes an affective experience, which is what the capitalist “gets,” and what the worker “loses,” from his or her work). The key point is that an agent engages an other (this is the action that is meant to be evoked by the eye’s movement from upper left-hand corner to upper right-hand corner), and that this action produces a tangible result (this is the action that is meant to be evoked by the eye’s movement from upper right-hand corner to lower right-hand corner).

The final move (signaled by the glance from lower right-hand corner to lower left-hand corner) is the most mysterious. Isn’t the process done once the capitalist has put the worker to work and the surpluses have been processed and divvied up? Lacan’s answer is no. In fact, the final step is the most important: it is the site of “truth” (also excess, or remainder); it is the moment wherein humans flirt with the possibility of stumbling upon anything other than opinions and know-how.

In the discourse of the master, we find the S-with-a-slash-through-it (Lacan’s symbol for the split subject, or all of us ordinary human neurotics) in the place of “truth.” The implication, then, is that capitalism produces, above all, neurotic subjects, with all our unhappiness and repression (for both workers and capitalists).

To my mind, the discourse of the master captures well the wealthy plutocrat’s problem in the cartoon; it also speaks to what was at the heart of Mitt Romney’s arrogance and Karl Rove’s meltdown on Fox News on election night. But, Lacan insists that the discourse of the master is on its way out. The scene that unfolded on Fox News as Karl Rove refused to confront reality, leading to Megyn Kelly’s trip to the number crunchers, who bemusedly confirmed that the science was on Obama’s side might as well have been an allegory for the uneasy transition from the discourse of the master to the discourse of the university.


The discourse of the university is the home planet of the Nate Silver-worshippers. Working through the clockwise moves from top left-hand corner to lower left-hand corner might tell us something interesting about what’s wrong with the wonkocracy. 

In the discourse of the university, the place of the agent is occupied by “S2”–knowledge itself, tout-savoir, “knowingness.” Knowledge puts a–here in its role as a transitional object, a “little piece of the real”– to work. “Data” might be the quintessential a in the discourse of the university, the object for which “knowingness” grasps.

Putting the “data” to work, knowledge creates the S-with-a-slash-through-it: neurotic subjectivity, obsessiveness, alienation from our (democratic) desires. (Consider how much ink gets spilled towards the end of election cycles by pundits swearing off or trying to curb their obsessive poll-watching, trying to wean their index fingers off the temptations of constantly hitting “refresh”). And the “truth” that is produced, the excess, the remainder: “S1”– the master. We speak like democrats, but we serve a master (or masters) as imperious and terrifying as any conjured up by feudalism.

So neither the discourse of the master nor the discourse of the university can give us the knowledge we need to escape our unhappy condition. This is what accounts for the other two discourses: that of the analyst (which is useless on its own, requiring an analysand to do all the work) and that of the hysteric (which is, for Lacan, the only context in which the new insights that we need are produced). “If there is one thing that psychoanalysis should force us to maintain obstinately,” Lacan argued, “it’s that the desire for knowledge bears no relation to knowledge… A radical distinction, which as far-reaching consequences from the point of view of pedagogy––the desire to know is now what leads to knowledge. What leads to knowledge is… the hysteric’s discourse”  (23). But, as Moustache says at the end of Irma La Douce, that’s another story.


Who knows how an essay such as this ought to wind down? Certainly not me. So I’ll go with a slice of Rancière that seems germane, in some way, maybe:

Democracy is as bare in its relation to the power of wealth as it is to the power of kinship that today comes to assist and to rival it. It is not based on any nature of things nor guaranteed by any institutional form. It is not borne along by any historical necessity and does not bear any. It is only entrusted to the constancy of its specific acts. This can provoke fear, and so hatred, among those who are used to exercising the magisterium of thought. But among those who know how to share with anybody and everybody the equal power of intelligence, it can conversely inspire courage, and hence joy.

[1] Justin Clement and Russell Grigg’s introduction to the companion volume on The Other Side of Psychoanalysis provides useful context: “Much was new in Paris universities in 1969”: The French academic establishment responded to the uprising of 1968 by creating the Universite de Paris VII (Vincennes), in which was housed a new (heavily Lacanian) Department of Psychoanalysis, and the famous Department of Philosophy staffed by Foucault, Deleuze, Ranciere, Badiou, and Lyotard.

“It is in this context,” Clements and Grigg remind us, “that Lacan delivered what we know as his Seminar XVII, The Other Side of Psychoanalysis), a yearlong, fortnightly deliberation on psychoanalysis (as always).” Although the Seminar was devoted to the interpretation of Freud, Lacan was also “deliberating on the contemporary social order.” Lacan interfaced with the intellectual culture of the student radicals: engaging with Marx, addressing “changing patterns of social and sexual behavior,” and the function of science and knowledge.

[2] The cult of Silver reminds me of Jacques Rancière’s important book Hatred of DemocracyFor all of the talk of democracy in contemporary politics, Rancière insists, no form of government is more hated by political elites and experts. What we refer to as “representative democracy” is in fact a mixed form: “a form of State functioning initially founded on the privilege of ‘natural’ elites and redirected little by little from its function by democratic struggle.” “Democracy can never be identified with a juridico-political form,”  Rancière reminds us. “This does not mean it is indifferent to such forms. It means that the power of the people is always beneath and beyond these forms.” But we do not live in democracies: “We live in States of oligarchic law, in other words, in States where the power of oligarchy is limited by a dual recognition of popular sovereignty and individual liberties.”

We know the advantages of these sorts of States as well as their limitations. They hold free elections. These elections essentially ensure that the same dominant personnel is reproduced, albeit under interchangeable labels, but the ballot boxes are generally not rigged and one can verify it without risking one’s life. The administration is not corrupt, except in matters of public contracts where administration is confounded with the interests of the dominant parties.

Thus, a consensual vision is established “on the back of an oligarchic system.” “According to this vision,” Rancière argues, “our basic reality does not leave us the choice to interpret it and merely requires responses adapted to the circumstances, responses which are generally the same, whatever our opinions and aspirations. This reality is called the economy; in other words, the unlimited power of wealth… if the limitless movement of wealth is posited as the incontrovertible reality of our world and its future, then it is left to governments, concerned with realistically managing the present and boldly forecasting the future, to take off the clamps that existing intertias within our national States put on its uninhibited development… We also know that the oligarchs, their experts and ideologues (manage to find the same explanation) for every disruption to the consensus: if science did not impress its legitimacy upon the people, it is because the people is ignorant. If progress does not progress, it is because of… ‘populism.’ The hope is that under this name they will be able to lump together every form of dissent in relation to the prevailing consensus, whether it involves democratic affirmation or religious and racial fanaticism. And it is hoped that a single principle will come to be ascribed to this thus constituted ensemble: the ignorance of the backward, the attachment to the past, be it the past of social advantages, or revolutionary ideals, or the religion of ancestors. Populism is the convenient name under which is dissimulated the exacerbated contradiction between popular legitimacy and expert legitimacy, that is, the difficulty the government of science has in adapting itself to manifestations of democracy and even to the mixed form of representative system. This name at once masks and reveals the intense wish of the oligarch: to govern without people, in other  words… to govern without politics” (47-51).

[3] This cartoon also calls to mind some wonderful writing by my friend Jordan Camp on the politics of the subaltern’s smile from a few years ago. Here is a relevant passage (hope he doesn’t mind me posting it here):

“In ‘The Specter’s Smile’ Antonio Negri speaks of a story from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Recollections about an afternoon in June 1948. The scene is the Tocqueville family’s left bank apartment, where they are having dinner. ‘Nevertheless, in the calm of the evening,’ Negri writes,

the cannondade fired by the bourgeoisie against the rebellion of rioting workers resounds suddenly—distant noises from the right bank. The diners shiver, their faces darken. But a smile escapes a young waitress who serves their table and has just arrived from the Faubourg Saint Antoine. She’s immediately fired. Isn’t the true specter of communism perhaps there in that smile? The one that frightened the Tsar, the pope … and the Lord of Tocqueville? Isn’t a glimmer of joy there, making for the specter of liberation?

Avery Gordon’s ‘Some Thoughts on the Utopian’ takes up Negri’s reading of the waitress’ smile as the embodiment of the ‘specter of liberation’ and in so doing offers a highly suggestive framework for the interpretation of… (the) ‘smile in the face of death.’ ‘The scandal of qualitative difference,’ Gordon reflects,

is well-captured by the unsettling power of the waitress’ smile. (It is not the smile of a ghost, but rather the smile of the servant who has suddenly and unexpectedly appeared as a secret agent, exposing nothing more but nothing less than the existence of another intelligent world her employer do not and cannot own or dismiss)…

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